An Open Letter to Illustration Graduates

Illustration by Michelle Kondrich ©2015

A few months ago, a student at my alma mater, Hastings College, reached out to me with advice about pursuing illustration. That school did/does not have a program for illustration and I could really identify with his questions and concerns. How do you turn an education in Fine Art into a career in illustration? Below is my response to him that I thought might be useful to anyone else leaving college and considering a career in commercial art.

Hi student,

Thank you so much for the reminder email! Fortunately, it came at a time when I have a couple of hours between things so this is perfect.

So, where to begin? One good place to start would be this article I wrote for Illustration Age about building an illustration career without going to “art school.”

The short answer to how I did it is that I made the decision to do it and didn’t stop working toward it, no matter how impossible it seemed.

The full answer is a little more complicated than that.

Illustration is an incredible field to work in, especially if you’re like me and get antsy doing the same thing over and over again for too long. Illustration allows me to work on a huge variety of subjects and seeing your work in print is always a thrill. If you feel strongly about pursuing illustration, then I say go for it, but be COMMITTED. And don’t be afraid to work a day job for as long as you need so that you can pay your bills.

Always Be Learning

You are fortunate enough to be leaving school at a time when the internet has made working as an illustrator accessible, regardless of where you live or where you went to school. So my first piece of advice would be to continue educating yourself one way or another. I’m assuming that Hastings College still does not have an Illustration program, correct? A major in Studio Art definitely moves you in the direction of having a career in illustration but there are a lot of places where Fine Art and Illustration differ. Some of the things I’ve done to educate myself:

  • Listened to Escape From Illustration Island
  • Took continuing education classes from SVA (but you could take them from any school that offers illustration classes)
  • Took online classes from places like Tutor Mill or Skillshare
  • Found established illustrators to take classes/mentoring sessions from

Some of these things will cost money but, if you compare it to the cost of getting a grad degree in Illustration, it’s not so bad. And a couple of sites that I didn’t use when I was starting out, but would be useful:

And there are so many great books out there for starting an illustration business.

Business

Another bit of advice is not to sleep on the business side of illustration. It might be a creative business but it is still a business. So make sure you educate yourself on contracts, taxes, best practices, etc. I am not an expert on any of these things, so the resources I gave you earlier are certainly a better place to learn those things.

And when it comes to clients, always be friendly and professional from start to finish. Don’t ever badmouth clients on social media. Even if your client doesn’t see it, others might and might assume that’s how you talk about all of your clients.

Portfolio

It goes without saying (I hope), that you will need a portfolio website so that people can find you and your work. If you haven’t already started building one, then think about the kind of jobs you want to get (editorial, publishing, advertising, etc.) and give yourself assignments in that area. Identify some dream clients and then create work aimed at their audience.

Keep in mind that what people see in your portfolio is what people will hire you for. If there is a particular style or subject matter you hate working with, don’t include it or you will definitely get hired to do that over and over again.

Right now I’m going to give you two pieces of advice that seem to be contradictory: 1. As soon as your portfolio has enough work, start sharing it with Art Directors and 2. Be ruthless when curating what is in your portfolio.

What I mean is, your portfolio is the lynchpin of this whole career. The longer it takes to get it out there, the longer it will be before people start to hire you. So as soon as you have 10-12 pieces that you feel great about, get that site live! At the same time, if you feel like something is only mediocre, it doesn’t belong in your portfolio. You should feel great about every piece in it and as you improve, you can add to it and start to replace some of the older pieces that maybe don’t look so great anymore.

And share your work on social media. People love seeing in-progress work and sketches, especially alongside the final. And be sure to engage with other people on social media. Common sense rules – be friendly, don’t be a jerk, don’t harass people or get too personal, etc. You can definitely get work from social media, so keep that in mind.

In my case, I was unhappy working a regular 9-5 job and was looking for something I would have more passion for. This seemed doable without having to go back and get a graduate degree, which I wouldn’t have been able to afford anyway. It certainly felt impossible early on, but making a little progress everyday turns into a huge amount of progress over time. Obstacles always show up. At one point I had a 3 year old (still have her!), a full-time job and a bunch of freelance work and it was hard, but giving up on a career I loved and had been working so hard to build was simply not something I was willing to do.

Since you are graduating, I’m guessing you will have some sort of full-time work in the near future. You might feel like you have no time to pursue something on the side or that your job zaps your creative energy too much, but as a freelance parent I am here to say that you do have time and energy – more than you know. If it’s what you truly want to do, make it happen.

I hope this was helpful. I know it’s a lot so feel free to ask me any follow-up questions and congratulations on graduating! Tell Tom and Turner hello for me. :)

Oh, and don’t be afraid to approach artists you admire with questions. As long as you are polite, gracious and don’t sound like you are sending a form email to 10 other illustrators, they are often happy to offer a few words of wisdom if you have a specific question. Just be sure to say thank you (I see a lot of illustrators on Twitter complaining about students who are told to email illustrators who don’t seem to have any appreciation for the illustrator’s time).

Good luck and let me know when you get your first client.

All my best,
Michelle

 

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Categories: business

Author:mkondrich

Michelle Kondrich is a commercial artist and animator specializing in editorial illustration. She is also skilled at creating animated GIFs, storyboards, and whiteboard animation/video scribes. Her work gives a narrative feel to even the most conceptual ideas and she is passionate about solving problems in often surprising ways. Michelle is the creator and host of Creative Playdate, a podcast for people pursuing creative careers while raising children. You can find her portfolio and the podcast at MichelleKondrich.com

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One Comment on “An Open Letter to Illustration Graduates”

  1. May 31, 2018 at 7:07 pm #

    This is great! Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience.

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